Liberal MPs constantly talk about the how different Turnbull is to Abbott; “it’s the vibe”. The electorate is yet to be convinced.
By Stuart Bruce, 6/3/2016
On Insider’s this morning, Barry Cassidy asked Liberal senator Mitch Fifield, how has Turnbull moved the government back to the centre after Tony Abbott’s tenure? Fifield replied somewhere along the lines of there being a change in tone. So “it’s the vibe” as Laura Tingle quipped. This is highly instructive.
Off the cuff, Fifield couldn’t name one policy that had substantively taken the government back to the centre. Turnbull has backed off some of Abbott’s more loony positions, like not federally funding public transport, but that’s about it, no signature emblematic change in policy can be pointed to. This is because Abbott shaped the Liberal Party in his own image prior to the last election and after rolling Turnbull as opposition leader in 2009, it hasn’t changed since then. With the exception of the retirement of Nick Minchin, a key ideological figure shaping the Liberal Party’s climate change policy, the soldiers of the hard right soldier on. Minchin was powerful and gleefully padded the nest with his supporters and ideologues prior to his departure. The next generation of the hard right were firmly in place before Minchin flew the coop.
It makes perfect sense that after winning the leadership of the then opposition, that Abbott arranged the pieces internally to align with his ideological positions; appointing his supporters to crucial posts to guard information flows, shape conversations – the internal power constellation necessary to deliver Abbott the authority he desired.
Abbott may have been rolled as prime minister but the arrangement of the pieces in favour for his approach to politics still remains very firmly in place under Turnbull. The Liberal Party is the party of Abbott and the backbenchers still there now were the ones that supported him as he led them back to government in 2013. They would prefer Abbott was leader, they just had to switch to Turnbull to keep their jobs as Abbott became steadfastly untenable due to his unpopularity.
This arrangement in Abbott’s favour was on display at the 10 year anniversary of John Howard’s government where the ‘tone’ in the room was strikingly more supportive of Abbott instead of Turnbull. It’s well known that Turnbull gets a frosty reception in many quarters of the Liberal Party. It is not yet his party. He has imposed himself on it by seizing the top job and he is still actively undermined from those amongst the top echelons of the party, ministers and party leaders on down.
We have these destabilising leaks from the National Security Committee (NSC) of which the Australian Federal Police are investigating. This is from the NSC which is a kind of sacred chamber for the Liberal Party, with national security being a kind of hallowed ground in their political landscape. To sabotage such sanctified territory, their natural area of authority with the public, is an attack to the very heart of Liberal Party politics. This is an egregious breach indeed, one that shows that the Abbott camp could very well be much like the Rudd camp and ready to blow up the Turnbull government to prioritise their interests. Ironically, this is much like when Turnbull mocked Rudd with the taunt that he would rather Labor lost power than see Gillard re-elected. He and other Liberals bunkered down on how significant such divisions and instabilities were for the credentials and authority of the government. On 10th June 2013, Malcolm Turnbull declared that “Labor is a hopelessly divided, dysfunctional rabble at the moment. It has to sort out its problems. It can only do that in Opposition.” The same is now happening to him as the new Gillard figure, undermined by a predecessor scorned.
The most disturbing aspect of this environment though is that Abbott’s tenure as Liberal leader and his hold over the party has meant that he and his supporters have been able to landmine the political landscape for Turnbull. To prevent him going back to the centre, they have left him no pathways to do so without the threat of “going nuclear” by instigating further leaks, backgroundings and potential revolts. Every step that would bring the Turnbull government back to the centre, back into alignment with the opinion of middle-Australia, has been landmined by Abbott and his supporters. They are leaving him with nowhere to go but to retreat to the policies of the 2014 budget – as indefensible as they were.
After twenty years of the disgraceful generational theft of negative gearing and CGT concessions, Labor offered an olive branch to the Liberals by releasing a sensible way to phase it out. Not only would Turnbull not even discuss it with them, he wouldn’t even countenance considering their policy and instead went the ‘full-Abbott’ and sloganeered with the fear-mongering that every homeowner in Australia should be afraid of Bill Shorten.
Voters were rightfully relieved when Abbott’s disastrous reign of terror was ended and were optimistic and even found it an exciting time to be an Australian with Turnbull as Prime Minister. That time has ended and disillusionment and high dudgeon is settling back in for the Australian polity. Had it ever really left or is it a permanent ‘tone’ in Australian politics now? A different Prime Minister maybe, but it’s still Abbott’s party, a party dominated by the hard right.
Stuart Bruce is the executive director of the Centre for Applied Political Psychology